Heroin abuse has been rising among Americans in recent years. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), more and more heroin is seized by agents and police each year. Yet, if you ask any person if heroin is addictive and dangerous, they will likely say that it is. Why are more Americans abusing heroin if it is so destructive to their health, happiness, and well-being?
How Heroin Works in the Brain
Heroin is an opiate which is developed from the drug morphine which comes from the opium poppy. The chemical process used and the way in which heroin is administered affects the speed at which it works within the body.
The way that morphine and heroin are built makes them chemically similar to neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) called endorphins. These are the chemicals that deal with pleasure and deaden pain. They are sometimes called the body’s “natural opiates.” Opiate drugs act like extremely powerful endorphins. They are more intense and powerful than the body’s naturally produced endorphins. Another neurotransmitter affected by drug use is dopamine – the “reward” chemical. But heroin and opiate use does a lot more than trigger chemicals.
The Heroin “Rush”
The “high” one experiences depends on how the heroin was administered. One of the most common ways to administer heroin is intravenously. Users shooting up often feel a surge of euphoria – called a “rush.” This is usually accompanied by dry mouth, flushed skin, arms and legs feeling “heavy,” and poor mental functioning. This rush usually lasts one or two minutes.
First-time users who shoot up often experience a much different reaction than long-term addicts. Their experiences usually include major abdominal discomforts, nausea, and vomiting. This initial discomfort is sometimes enough to put off the individual from further experimentation with heroin. However, the drug is extremely addictive; even after using it a few times a person can become addicted.
“Coming Down” from Heroin
Part of the reason heroin is so addictive is the physical and mental problems experienced when the individual stops using it. Heroin withdrawal can cause severe discomfort in a user. Here are some of the most common withdrawal symptoms users and addicts experience when they try to stop using heroin:
- Runny nose and eyes
- Flu-like symptoms and fever
- Muscle cramps and aches
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Stomach cramps and spasms
- Anxiety, mood changes
- Drug craving
Because heroin affects the pleasure centers of the brain, training in new pleasurable activities is needed to help the individual return to a drug-free life. Rehab is always recommended after detoxing from heroin. This gives the brain time to recalibrate and gives the individual a way to discover what drew them to heroin and find healthy alternatives for handling their problems.
Risks of Heroin
There are considerable risks connected to heroin and there are good reasons people instantly think of it as deadly. Unfortunately, these facts are either not known to some or are not enough to deter them from trying the drug. Some of these risks are:
- It is an illicit drug and as such, the buyer never knows what is really being purchased. It could be laced with a stimulant or even fentanyl, a powerful medical analgesic that is 80-100 times more powerful than morphine. Mixing opiates such as heroin or morphine with a stimulant like cocaine is particularly dangerous.
- After getting off heroin, if the recovering user tries to use it again in a quantity similar to what they had become accustomed to, the chances for overdose increase.This is because the body, having detoxed, is now much more sensitive to drugs and poisons.
- Injection is the most deadly form of administering heroin as it enters the central nervous system (CNS) immediately, in addition to risks of HIV/AIDs, hepatitis, and infections from needle sharing and dirty needles.
- Overdose and death from heroin and opiates is usually the result of respiratory depression, wherein the breathing rate slows down and insufficient oxygen is gotten into the lungs, as well as too much carbon dioxide. A user can also go unconscious and choke on their own vomit or otherwise injure themselves and be unable to regain consciousness.
- Long-term heroin addiction is extremely debilitating on the user physically, mentally, and spiritually. Some of the effects are sexual dysfunction, bacterial infections, abscesses, collapsed veins, severe weight loss, heart infections, liver and kidney disease – to name a few.
The Opiate Epidemic
Prescription painkillers are generally in the opiate class and are often referred to as “opioids.” They are either synthetic or opium derivatives.
This all points to a trend that news outlets like NPR have taken notice of: People addicted to painkillers are turning to heroin as a cheaper alternative. This is feasible because drugs like OxyContin, codeine, Vicodin, and Percocet (hydrocodone) are all in the same category as heroin. OxyContin (oxycodone) has been referred to as synthetic heroin or “hillbilly heroin” only now heroin is often cheaper and more widely available. One opiate can often be substituted for another without experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
The modern problem of prescription drug addiction may turn us back to a situation that was thought to be largely held in check. But with help from detox centers and rehab facilities, as well as drug awareness reaching young people, this potential epidemic can still be fought effectively.